[Paleopsych] Douglas Rushkoff: The Networked Individual

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Sun Aug 22 23:20:37 UTC 2004

Douglas Rushkoff: The Networked Individual
Mon Jun 28 20:30:00 GMT 2004

The cell phone may be bringing us into a new renaissance, but it may end
up differently than what we're expecting. Instead of becoming more
empowered as individuals, we may give up on the notion of individuality

The Renaissance -- the great big one they taught us about in school --
is known for a lot of great inventions: perspective painting, the
printing press, ships that could circumnavigate the earth, modern
banking and even the sonnet. What we tend to forget about the 15th and
16th centuries, though, is that this was also when we invented the

Sure, we knew that people existed in their individual bodies for a long
time. Even cavemen knew that hitting the guy over there meant hitting
someone else. But people were so highly identified with their tribes,
clans or fiefdoms, that they didn't really think of themselves as
individuals. Anyone who was a true individual was pretty much an outcast
-- either banished, mutant, a leper or, at best, a shaman, whose
individuality was as much a curse as a blessing.

No, the real individual, as he or she is known today, was born as a 'he'
during the renaissance. The mad genius Dr. Faustus is often cited as the
first full-fledged individual character in drama; he's the scientist who
has reached the height of knowledge and capability and must make a deal
with the devil in order to reach to even higher levels of power.

The Renaissance Man was understood as a person with many capabilities.
What we may not fully appreciate, however, is that at that time, this
meant embodying all these capabilities oneself. Leonardo da Vinci wasn't
friends with some people who thought about airplanes and with other ones
who thought about human anatomy. He did all of these things himself. The
fully realized person was very much a lone individual.

Largely because of this, media scholars from McLuhan to Ong think of the
Renaissance as the beginning of our era of fragmentation. As we gained
the ability to write things down and print them in great quantity, oral
culture died out. We didn't have to sit and breathe with one another in
order to communicate. We could resort, instead, to the more abstract and
utterly impersonal language of text. This separated us further, and
replaced a culture built on abundance (a feminine archetype actively
repressed during the renaissance) with one of scarcity (in support of
high-interest banking and other centralized policies).

Compound this with the beginnings of the industrial age, where human
beings devolved from craftsmen into laborers, and you get real
disintegration of the communal unit. We stopped making things by hand,
and became cogs in the mechanized factories. The more things we
produced, the more individual customers we needed for them.

Mass production led to mass marketing which required a mass media. And
the more individualized consumers became -- the more separated in their
own suburban homes, isolated from their communities and totally
self-reliant -- the more stuff they would need to buy. A community would
be quite content with one big barbecue in the park at the end of the
street. A neighborhood with no communal values requires one barbecue for
each home. This made competition and isolation a better environment for
mass production.

Finally, the original Renaissance launched the era of specialization.
Why? Because, according to the historical analysis of thinkers like
Buckminster Fuller, monarchs of early nation-states were afraid for any
individual to know too much! So universities were divided into strictly
separate disciplines. We became even more individualized, but without
the (false) promise of ever becoming a true renaissance person. At best,
we could become a "jack of all trades, master of none."

Eventually, however, every movement tends to become its opposite. Just
as our religions told us that someone else had sacrificed himself so we
wouldn't have to, our commercial culture promoted the culture of the
individual through commercials that insisted, "you are worth it!" Treat
your "self" to this product or experience, because you are an individual
and you deserve it. US Army commercials even encouraged young people to
join the "Army of one." Our media got so good at befriending and
encouraging the individual, that we individuals -- with no friends to
call our own -- fell in love with our media.

So we got better TV's, with remotes, camcorders, and keyboards. We got
cell phones, Wi-Fi connections, and messaging systems. What our
marketers didn't realize is that they had inadvertently sold us the very
tools we could use to reverse this relentless drive towards
individualism and steer our civilization towards something very

Yes, we got the ability to make our own media, which cannot be
underestimated. Whether posting on a conference or writing an article
for a blog, self-expression is a great key to understanding. But, more
importantly, the interactive devices, which allow for what I've come to
see as a second great renaissance, give us access to one another. They
break down individualism as we know it, and help us redefine it as
something very different: as our ability to forge connections with one
another. To cooperate instead of compete.

The definition of an individual is changing, thanks in greatest part to
wireless interactivity. While the Internet heralded this day, the
wireless renaissance actually makes it a reality. Human beings are not
who they are when they are sitting at their computers. In some ways,
this only exacerbates our fragmentation. We are fully functioning human
beings when we are fully animated, and capable of rejoining the many
kinds of groups in which we like to gather - and haven't, in some cases,
for the past four or five hundred years.

No matter how much we like to talk about "freedom of the individual"
here in the United States, that freedom comes down pretty much to the
freedom to buy whatever we want, and to withdraw from pretty much any
set of community values in order to protect or pay for our nuclear
families (a value system, again, supported through distortions of
democracy and religion).

There has been some good buzz about the idea that the Internet has led
to a redefinition of individual agency. A number of academics have
seized upon the idea of a Networked Individualism and the change that
networking brings to the way we think of ourselves in relationship to

I think we're looking at a trend much bigger than this and, because
these things fit in the palm of our hands, much smaller as well. The
always-on and always-available quality of the emerging wireless universe
changes what it means to be an individual. Increasingly, the power and
agency of individuals is defined not by what they know -- not what's on
the hard drive -- but who and what they have access to -- who is in
their date book, or how readily they can find a link.

In a zen sense, the less present and opaque the individual, the greater
ability he or she has to serve as a node in the network, and the more
trusted the information and ideas that node provides. Even those
individuals lucky enough to be valued for their opinions and assessments
will increasingly be judged by the breadth of access they have to

No, an individual is no longer the sum total of his or her accumulated
abilities and achievements. Hording data, stuff, even money, no longer
makes sense in a world where such things are no longer measured in the
scarcity of early Renaissance values, but are instead beginning to be
understood in terms of sharing, social currency, and smart-mob-driven

The wireless renaissance brings us back to our pre-renaissance
understanding of individuality. Indeed, the tribal shaman, that witch
doctor who lived apart from the tribe, may have been an individual as
far as the civilians were concerned, but he was most valued for his
ability to network: he traveled through other realms, and retrieved
information and messages from beings far away, or even the dead.

And that doesn't sound so different from the un-wired, networked
individual of the current renaissance, after all.

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